Home > Reviews > THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI – Malcolm Arnold

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI – Malcolm Arnold

bridgeontheriverkwaiMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

One day, out of curiosity, producer Sam Spiegel happened to purchase the novel “Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï” by Pierre Boulle, which was, at the time, the talk of the day. He read the novel on a plane flight and by the time he arrived in London, he was determined to bring the story to the big screen. Complications arose immediately as his trusted screenwriters, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, were on the infamous McCarthy blacklist of people accused of Communist sympathies, and were forced to ghost-write, while Boulle, who could not speak, let alone write in English, was assigned the sole writing credit. Spiegel brought in David Lean to direct the film and they assembled a stellar cast for the project, including Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, William Holden as Captain Shears and Sessue Hayakawa as the brutal Colonel Saito.

The story is drawn from real events in WWII where British prisoners of war were ordered to build a bridge to connect a rail line connecting Burma and Siam. Nicholson, on principle and citing the Geneva Convention, refuses Saito’s order for his officers to join in manual labor. Saito tortures him, yet he refuses to succumb. Faced with a deadline, Saito acquiesces and releases Nicholson, who agrees to organize his men for the effort. Nicholson believes that this endeavor will offer enduring testimony to the strength, dignity and indomitable spirit of British soldiers under harsh circumstances. Although Nicholson is an honorable man, he becomes obsessed and we slowly begin to see the bridge shift from a testament to the courage of British soldiers to a monument that edifies his ego. A Special Forces team is sent to destroy the bridge on the day of its inauguration during a Japanese supply train’s transit. Charges are set, which Nicholson discovers and, remarkably, he alerts Saito to the danger. As they inspect the bridge a firefight ensues, killing Saito and some of the Special Forces. A shell shocked Nicholson experiences an epiphany when viewing the dead British soldiers and utters “what have I done?”, realizing that he has been collaborating with the enemy. The film ends poetically as we see Nicholson collapse from his wounds on to the dynamite plunger, thus destroying the bridge as the train passes. The film was an enormous commercial and critical success, earning eight Academy Award nominations, and winning seven, among them, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Film Score. As fate would have it, Boulle also ended up winning the Oscar for his ‘screenplay’, which precipitated great controversy. In 1984 all was made right when the Academy retrospectively awarded the Oscar to Wilson and Foreman.

Spiegel had wanted to release his film by December 31, 1957, the deadline for it to be eligible for Academy Award consideration, but by early December 1957, he had still not hired a composer to score the film! He sought out British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, who was at that point best known for his scores for The Sound Barrier (1952), The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Trapeze (1956), as well as his numerous ballets, symphonies and works for the British theatre. Arnold was tasked with writing the score in a mere ten days, and he rose to the occasion. Originally, Lean wanted the British troops to be introduced singing the “Colonel Bogey March”, a popular tune written in 1914 by Frederick Ricketts, a British Army bandmaster who later became the director of music for the Royal Marines, and used the pseudonym Kenneth J. Alford. However, during WWII, British troops had adapted its melody to accompany bawdy new lyrics – “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball!” – and Spiegel was appalled, refusing to allow this “vulgarity” into his film. However, Lean and Arnold were still able to make their patriotic point as they adapted the march, having the men whistle its melody.

The Colonel Bogey March and Arnold’s River Kwai March serve as the primary thematic identities of the score. The two marches are kindred in construct in that The River Kwai March’s countermelody utilizes the same chord progressions as The Colonel Bogey March. The British Military Theme is rendered in two forms; the first is a classic forthright march carried by strings nobile and horns, in the finest traditions of the British military, but the second variant is a truly twisted rendering by dissonant and eerie tremolo strings, which speak to us of its corruption by Colonel Nicholson’s loss of perspective and egotistical obsession with the bridge. Lastly, for Colonel Saito, Arnold provides a simple motif, a dark and descending low register line, which informs us of his menace.

The opening “Overture” is a powerful cue and a score highlight. It is a harsh, brutal and militaristic piece, which opens powerfully with horns bellicoso, informing us of the drama soon to unfold. It begins as the opening credits roll and we see the prisoners arriving by train. As the beleaguered men march through the sweltering jungle to the camp, Arnold juxtaposes pastoral strings and harp that speak of the jungle’s beauty with martial trumpet calls alluding to the misfortunes of war. Slowly the music evolves into a marcia brutale as they march to their fate. A brief respite with the festive River Kwai March lightens the moment, and ushers in spirited strings and woodwinds, which ends with a vista shot of the camp. “Colonel Bogey March” offers another score highlight. It plays as the men march into camp, and speaks to the indomitable spirit of the British military. The theme is presented in its entirety with it’s A Phrase emoted as a classic march, while its B Phrase is surprisingly lyrical, offering a stylish embellishment. As the men arrive and assume formation, Arnold brings in the full orchestra for a grand finish atop repeated statements of the A Phrase.

“Shear’s Escape” is a complex multi-scenic cue. It reveals Shears escape from the camp, his travails and ultimate success in achieving freedom. Arnold weaves the thematic material of the overture into Shear’s trek, which unfolds energetically to support his flight. We shift scenes to the Japanese guards returning to the camp with the three men that were killed, which unfolds as a grim march. Swirling strings with trumpet counters take us back to the jungle where Shears is seen struggling to crawl ashore from a raging river. As he struggles against the jungle’s oppressive heat a marcia brutale takes form and crescendos as he reaches the sanctuary of a village. We conclude with villagers seeing him off in a boat to celebratory strings, yet the music again becomes dissonant and oppressive as he struggles in the oppressive heat. We conclude his journey to freedom with dissonant horn fare, which inform us of him reaching the ocean, and freedom. “Nicholson’s Victory” is a complex dichotomous cue. It opens on warm strings, which usher in a declaration of the first variant of the British Military Theme. This is short-lived as it mutates into the second more twisted variant on eerie tremolo strings as we witness Colonel Saito’s capitulation with the release of Colonel Nicholson and his officers. This twisted and dissonant rendering of the British Military Theme plagues Saito and reflects his inner torment as he has lost face and is seen crying in solitude in his cabin. At 2:30 as the men realize Nicholson has triumphed, the music becomes celebratory and Arnold supports the moment with a festive rendering of The River Kwai March.

“Sunset” is a score highlight, a delight, and what I believe to be, it’s most beautiful cue. We see a contented Nicholson walking atop the completed bridge with a sense of pride and accomplishment. When Saito joins him, Nicholson lets his guard down and shares a personal moment as he recounts his life. Saito however maintains the veneer of his stoical Japanese bearing and does not respond in kind. Arnold perfectly captures the moment by stripping out the martial nature of the River Kwai March, instead providing a warm, lyrical and extended rendering with gentile strings, harp and pastoral woodwinds. Simply beautiful! “Working on the Bridge” is a similarly complex cue, which features interplay between Arnold’s themes. The scene reveals a now energized, determined and organized British led labor force working on the bridge. A sparkling rendering of the River Kwai March supports the activity. An ominous interlude by Colonel Saito’s motif plays as a stoic Saito looks on. The second variant of the British Military Theme then joins in interplay with the River Kwai March as Nicholson summarily rejects the doctor’s suggestion that their bridge building activities could be construed as collaboration, or worse, treason. Arnold perfectly attenuates his music to the psychology of this scene.

“Trek to the Bridge” features the commando team’s arduous trek through the unforgiving jungle. We open with a forthright expression of the British Military Theme, but its luster fades and dissonance rises as they progress, thus reflecting their travails. Arnold uses nativist-sounding piccolos to reference the local Thai women bearers accompanying the team. The British Military Theme carries the men ever onward, yet it struggles in its expression, mirroring the team’s struggle. In “Camp Concert Dance” we see a drag show as the men entertain and celebrate. Arnold offers campy source music in the spirit of Vaudeville as the men celebrate the completion of the bridge. “Finale” features the aftermath of Nicholson’s death and the bridge’s destruction. It opens with ominous horns, which usher in a festive rendering of the River Kwai March, which celebrates the British victory. After an interlude of horns nobile the River Kwai March reprises as the end credits roll.

“River Kwai March” is a glorious cue, which offers a full and extended rendering of the British march in all its pomp and martial glory. “I Give My Heart To No One But You” is a source song composed by Carl Millocker and Richard Leigh. The singer is uncredited. “Dance Music” plays as background source music for the scene where we see Shears relaxing with his girl on a beach in Ceylon. Lastly we have the Mitch Miller medley of “The River Kwai March/Colonel Bogey March”, which is a wonderful score highlight! It features the two marches presented with orchestral accompaniment and chorus in marvelous contrapuntal interplay! It does not get any better than this. Bravo!

While the sound quality on the Legacy/Columbia Records CD does not match current 21st century qualitative standards, the digital editing does manage to present a descent listening experience. This is a classic score well worthy of your exploration. It offers three splendid marches in the finest of military traditions, which perfectly capture the heart of this film. How Arnold attenuates his music to flesh out the underlying psychology of the film’s narrative is spot on and testimony to his mastery of his craft. I believe this score to be a classic, a fine example of the Golden Age, and one essential for your collection

Buy the Bridge on the River Kwai soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (4:24)
  • Colonel Bogey March (2:52)
  • Shear’s Escape (3:58)
  • Nicholson’s Victory (4:45)
  • Sunset (3:54)
  • Working on the Bridge (2:58)
  • Trek to the Bridge (8:28)
  • Camp Concert Dance (2:36)
  • Finale (2:12)
  • River Kwai March (2:58)
  • I Give My Heart To No One But You (written by Carl Millocker and Richard Leigh) (3:16)
  • Dance Music (written by Dave Shand) (4:54)
  • River Kwai March/Colonel Bogey March (performed by Mitch Miller & His Orchestra) (2:28)

Running Time: 49 minutes 50 seconds

Legacy/Columbia CK-66131 (1946/1995)

Music composed and conducted by Malcolm Arnold. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Malcolm Arnold and Charles Camilleri. “Colonel Bogey March” by Kenneth J. Alford. Score produced by Malcolm Arnold. Album produced by Tom Null and Richard Kraft.

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